When Soledad State prison made it to the national news cycle, after the release of “This Is Life With Lisa Ling” a documentary produced by Lisa Ling about how incarcerated people were able to raise an unprecedented amount of money ($30,000) to pay the tuition for a young Black kid named Sy Green to attend the prestigious Palma High, a private school located just a few miles from the prison – I felt some type of way. I felt some type of way not because what we accomplished wasn’t great; or that it didn’t give me joy to see my friend “Jay” – Jason Bryant – having a conversation on the Kelly Clarkson Show with Kelly herself, Lisa Ling, and Shemar Moore, about incarcerated men being vulnerable defying the normative societal expectation, and being the very embodiment of integrity; or that I wasn’t grateful that Lisa Ling decided out of all the prisons in this carceral nation to do a story about Soledad (every time we crossed paths while she and her team were here filming, my admiration of her work induced a star-strucked nervousness that only allowed me to convey a childish “hello!”) But I felt some type of way because this was only part of the story of what it means to be an incarcerated person at Soledad; the way these segments framed their stories about this documentary effectively erased the real-life experiences of a large portion of incarcerated people at this very prison; experiences which although weren’t covered in the documentary, but were undoubtedly present in its subtext.
“That’s fucked up, bruh!” One person who wishes to remain anonymous told me “they were on national TV talking about Shemar Moore’s father being a Black Panther, and his experiences with the prison system, and no one mentioned that at the same prison which was at the center of the documentary being discussed, y’all were up in here being brutalized for supposed connections to the Black Panthers.” I definitely shared similar sentiments, and made the same observations. However, I made other observations as well.
As I sat in my cell listening to Shemar Moore talk about his proximate experiences with the criminal legal system through his father – a former Black Panther – I thought to myself, this would be the perfect opportunity for someone to educate the public about California prison systems anti-Black racist policies that allow its officers to target Black people – often violently – for simply possessing literature about the Black Panthers, or even for possessing a photograph of the Black Panther symbol, Huey P. Newton, or any other historical Black figure from the civil rights era. I listened to the entire segment hoping that someone would make the connection; but nothing was said. As I sat there reflecting, I realized that nothing could be said because those who were a part of the conversation on the Kelly Clarkson Show – like the wider public – are unaware that, although the Black Panther Party is viewed by the greater society as having been a necessary part of our collective history, Californias prison system considers them – and any other expression of Black cultural identity – as evidence of ones membership in a Security Threat Group (STG).
This is not an excuse, but it does explain part of the problem in organizing around prison abolition; there is an information gap. Had those present been informed about California’s, (and America at large) long history and current reality of anti- Black racism, it could have been a powerful moment in pointing out how ironic it was to be having a conversation about the Black Panthers on national television in connection with pro-social activities taking place at Soledad, while at the same time – at Soledad – incarcerated Black people we’re being criminalized for simply possessing literature about the Black Panthers; some of the same people who donated and went canvasing Soledad State Prison cell-by-cell soliciting donations; the same people who were featured in the documentary donating their entire checks to do what little they could to help tip the proverbial scale in the favor of a young kid who reminded them of themselves once upon a time. These same philanthropic souls that were being praised on national television, were being demonized behind closed doors.
What is sad is, as has always been the case throughout history, that even after being made aware of the problems with placese such as Soledad, very few people will be courageous enough to speak out against this corrupt system. There is a fear that has always coexisted with systems of white supremacy that is directly connected to reform, which is that due to the nature of reform (which was elaborated on in part one of this series), individuals and organizations become ingrained into the systems and are afraid to speak out against them in fear of losing some type of position or privilege provided by the system which it has become a part of.
This was pointed out by Audre Lorde in her comments at the Personal and Political panel at NYU where she said that this perceived privilege or position does not situate one to be able to bring about lasting change. The only way to bring about lasting change, she says, it to learn “how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those other identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
So in the next two parts of this series, we are going to dig into what this actually looks like as it concerns prison abolition, through the historical lense of Californias prison system in general, and Soledad State Prison in particular.
We are going to explore the origins of our racialized views about prisons, criminality and Black people. We live in a society where Black people who commit crime are viewed as being perpetually criminal, and therefore deserving of perpetual punishment – extralegal or otherwise. We hear it often when someone is a victim of police brutality or otherwise mistreated, they often explain “I was treated like a criminal” or “I didn’t even commit a crime” or they ask the officer “did I commit a crime?” Implying that abuse and brutality are the expected and accepted forms of punishment for those who commit crime. And who in our society is seen as a representative of criminality more than incarcerated Black people? Where did these beliefs come from?
It would be grossly negligent to assume that the “feel good” stories featured in special segments on the news – or most recently, The Kelly Clarkson Show – about Soledad State Prison are a reflection of the reality of what it means to be an incarcerated person in this city within a city, just off Highway 101.
The reality is that this prison – and CDCR as a whole – functions in anonymity with autonomy in Vatican-like fashion where those outside its domain know nothing of the many human and civil rights violations occurring daily within the walls of these gray wastelands except what the prison itself makes available through curated statements and carefully crafted press releases.
And when those who are not connected to the prison – and therefore have no vested interest in maintaining the fictitious public image the prison seeks to portray – are granted access and are in a position to convey the full story, they are allowed to film only “special events.” It is the coverage of these events, and subsequent exposure, that eclipses and distorts the reality of what it means to be incarcerated at Soledad State Prison.
It is understandable – the urge of those who want to help and who truly believe they are being helpful by writing articles, filming and reporting on incarcerated people at Soledad building tiny houses for the unhoused, or spearheading a fundraiser to pay the tuition for a young Black boy to attend a prestigious private school, and countless other pro-social activities initiated by incarcerated people here at Soledad. However, the politics of respectability (or uplift suasion) painting a positive image of incarcerated people does more harm than good, and in fact perpetuates racist ideas about prison if you’re not, in the same sentence, talking about the ugly reality of mass incarceration and all that upholds it, i.e. predatory capitalism, anti-Black racism, classism and exceptionalism.
In 1979, Audre Lorde delivered a speech at New York University titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Within this title is the idea that there exists a system that must be dismantled, but that it cannot be done by utilizing the tools designed for its maintenance. Drawing on the historic symbolism of slavery, the “master’s house” that she was referring to in her speech is the entire system of white supremacy, or what bell hooks refers to as white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy.
Lorde was speaking to a room filled predominantly with white feminists who allowed their identification as “feminist” to blind them to the fact that they were mostly white while claiming to be there to discuss “the role of difference within the lives of American women; differences of race, sexuality, class and age.” Lorde continued, explaining, “The absence of these considerations weakens any feminist discussion of the personal or political.”
It is upon this premise that this piece is founded. Failing to discuss prison in its entirety, in my opinion, weakens any discussion about systematic change. Lorde asks, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” She continued with the answer, stating, “It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”
Among the “tools” of racist patriarchy are the lenses through which we examine these various systems. In the above instance, Lorde was speaking towards a Eurocentric vision or approach amongst feminists, as it concerned white supremacy. As it concerns prison, one of the most obvious expressions of white supremacy, the prevailing approach has been a reformist approach, which is simply another shade of Eurocentrism.
The absurdity of reform becomes apparent when we realize that subsumed within the idea of reform is the belief that that which is being reformed is good at its core, that it only needs to be polished. However, we know based on countless studies and firsthand experiences that prison is actually rotten at its core.
Rooted in slavery, prison will never be divorced from anti-Black racism no matter how vehemently prison spokespeople try to convince us that it is a thing of the past. Therefore, to discuss prison without including in that discussion its harsh reality while only highlighting exceptionalism does a disservice to, and derails from its onset, any discussion of systemic change.
Showcasing exceptionalism in the prison context without telling the full story perpetuates the myth that prisons work, that prisons are a good thing, or at the very least, necessary. It also perpetuates the idea that certain people deemed unexceptional belong in prison and that incarcerated people need only apply themselves in order to reap the “benefits” of incarceration, i.e. job placement in an outdated skill, favorable rapport with officers and other prison officials who, because of that rapport, make recommendations for parole by writing “good guy” chronos (we’ll touch more on that later).
This is problematic because it assumes that those who fail to reap the above mentioned “benefits” do so by their own lack of merit. When we look at the demographics in regards to who is granted parole, for instance, we see that it is Black people who receive the highest level of denials.
Following the existing narrative, this would mean that Black people largely fail to apply themselves and therefore do not “deserve” to be granted parole. This, in turn, suggests that Black people belong in prison. However, we know this is not the case. We know that these disparities exist due to implicit as well as explicit biases on behalf of correctional officers, parole board commissioners, and other prison officials who largely view Black people as threatening, difficult and therefore undeserving.
Recently, Politico published an article about Black employees at CDCR headquarters in Sacramento sending out an open letter to Ralph Diaz, after he, as secretary of CDCR, sent out a memo to address racism in the department after the killing of George Floyd. The open letter from about 25 Black employees detailed “issues with the agency’s hiring practices, lack of support for Black employees and lack of representation.” It went on to recount “experiences of being passed over for promotions, retaliated against for speaking up about discriminatory behavior, stereotyped as ‘angry Black women,’ and described as aggressive and disrespectful in their communication style.”
In a system where the Black employees of said system face the aforementioned discrimination, is it really a surprise that incarcerated Black people are subjected to the same, and often worse, discrimination in that same system? What is sad is that we already know the answer to that question. It’s a well known fact that incarcerated Black people have an entirely different experience when it comes to the criminal legal system. However, we have been socialized to accept punishment as the only response to crime, and therefore, the systems responsible for performing that punishment are accepted as necessary, and the treatment meted out by these systems is normalized, even by people who claim to be fighting injustice.
Incarcerated people are expected to silently endure torture. Incarcerated people who speak out against injustices, because of these racist views about “criminality,” make people uncomfortable, even so-called supporters.
I have been cautioned by multiple individuals who, out of a clear understanding of how morally corrupt this system is, have warned me that my speaking out against systemic racism while being incarcerated in that system probably isn’t the wisest thing to do and that I should even wait to tell my story until I get out. It’s either that or face the probability of being denied parole for speaking the truth. My response has always been this: If people in so-called “free society” aren’t being holistic about the stories they share with the public, then it is the responsibility of people incarcerated in places like Soledad to do so.
I cannot bring myself to censor my speech about something that is so very wrong. What we are talking about is urgent as countless people continue to languish in places like this for 20, 30, 40-plus years for no other reason than the color of their skin and the way they make those in authority positions feel uncomfortable about their racism. My question is, aren’t we moving towards a system of restorative justice, where not only is the focus on repairing the harm that was done between people, but also holding systems accountable for the harm they cause? If so, we cannot pretend that injustices do not exist, or that, as slavery was depicted in films like “Gone With the Wind,” prison is this utopian microcosm of society where incarcerated people are treated with the utmost respect and given everything needed to re-enter society.
When we look beyond the statistics and into the lives of people in prison, we can clearly see that there is nothing exceptional about successful incarcerated people, Black or otherwise. Incarcerated people step into their humanity daily, and it’s not because they are exceptional or because of prison conditions. Incarcerated people step into their humanity daily in spite of prison conditions, facing racial discrimination and various other forms of dehumanizing treatment, including but definitely not limited to unhealthy living conditions and violent physical abuse.
Incarcerated people continue to reach beneath the hurt and humiliation to find the strength to carry on with daily activities, including attending self-help groups like Life C.Y.C.L.E. to read John Steinbeck novels with children from Palma High School.
These are the people sitting next to Lisa Ling with smiles on their faces while their hearts hold preventable pain and anguish. Just because their every word isn’t about the many indignities they endure doesn’t mean these indignities do not exist. Their silence should not be mistaken for solace, nor their smiles for contentment. They would simply rather suspend a harsh reality than to languish in the sorrow of their daily existence, even if only for a moment through the lens of a camera. One need only look at images of enslaved Africans next to their so-called “slavemasters” to see their historical equivalence.
Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, the Central Park 5, and the list goes on. The ramifications of being falsely accused of a crime in America can be, and often have been, deadly for Black people.
Since the horrors of the European capitalist-economic enterprise known as the Atlantic Slave Trade, Black people – primarily Black men – have been lynched, burned alive, castrated and subjected to every other form of torture imaginable, as a result of being falsely accused of a crime. On the surface, these accusations seem to be rooted in fear and ignorance, but when investigated, are proven to be rooted in nothing other than a device on behalf of the dominant capitalist, white supremacist or patriarchal culture to maintain a position of power.
Not too long ago, we witnessed an attempt at jeopardizing the life of a Black man in Central Park. Just hours before George Floyd was murdered by four Minneapolis police officers, this man, who was birdwatching, politely asked a white woman to leash her dog. Her hostile call to police came not out of fear or ignorance, but was due to a boldness provided by her knowledge of how Black men in particular are viewed now and historically in this country.
Her attempt on the life of this Black man reveals the ever-present reality of what it means to be Black in America: to live in fear of being hunted. Media outlets immediately noted that things could and likely would have been drastically different had the incident not been caught on camera. Protesters and activists throughout the world held up and continue to hold up signs asking this very question about the latest string of televised crimes against Black people, “How many weren’t caught on camera?” But what about places where there are no cameras?
As an incarcerated person, I immediately began to reflect on my present reality and what those who are incarcerated know all too well: namely that what occurs in public throughout America has been taking place in the darkness of America’s prison system since its inception. “The prison is the place where state power is perhaps more forcefully experienced and publicly legitimized without being seen,” writes Dan Berger in “Captive Nation.”
“In other words, the prison is an example of state power at its most violent extreme, as well as an example of the way that power cloaks itself in invisibility,” he writes.
The lens through which we have been allowed to look into California’s prison system is the darkest opaque. Oftentimes, it takes a major incident for light to be shone on prisons: a riot, stabbing, major contraband bust, anything to slant public opinion against the incarcerated.
But when something takes place that puts the integrity of correctional officers, and ultimately the entire system itself into question, silence abounds.
In the aftermath of the violent 3 a.m. raid on approximately 200 incarcerated Black people at Soledad State Prison on July 20 – if it wasn’t for the tireless effort of my wife, Tasha Williams, whose article in the San Francisco Bay View first alerted the world to what happened here at Soledad, as well as the tireless effort of countless wives, family members and loved ones sharing her article and the stories of their incarcerated friends and family who were brutalized, the world would, without doubt, still be in the dark about what happened to us.
Prison officials, on the other hand, waited an entire week before releasing a statement, and still it was only after and in response to receiving thousands of phone calls and emails from across the country culminating in protests in front of the prison that the spokesperson for Soledad State Prison released a statement to the public.
The statement denied the injuries, denied we were targeted because of our race, and most telling of all, that statement would not have been released had it not been for the continuous pressure from both inside and, more importantly, outside organizers against a system that thrives in silence. The prison’s silence was an attempt to “cloak itself in invisibility,” and yet their public statement was an attempt to do the same.
The following is a detailed first-hand account and contextualizing of what really happened in the early morning hours of July 20, 2020, at Soledad CTF (Correctional Training Facility), as well as the events that followed.
When I was violently snatched out of my sleep and slammed into the wall head first off the top bunk, I thought I was dreaming. I didn’t know what was going on; all I heard was yelling and felt hands grabbing my arms and legs. With a knee in my back, my hands were zip-tied and I was forcefully snatched up by my throat and dragged out of the cell.
As soon as my eyes were able to adjust enough to glance to the right, I heard my cell mate, a 55-year-old man with degenerative disc disease in his spine, a chronic shoulder injury, and who is a diabetic, crying out that they were hurting his arm. I could see what I believe were two men wearing helmets, equipped with night vision, wearing fatigues, with black marks covering their faces entirely, doing to him what had been done to me.
I was carried out of the housing unit barefoot, wearing nothing but boxer briefs, forced to walk on a filthy floor down the central corridor, towards the dining hall. Along the way I could see and hear the same thing happening in every unit we passed, officers yelling “drag him” referring to people who had already been ripped violently from their sleep.
The atmosphere was filled with fear and uncertainty. To my surprise, when we turned into the dining hall, I saw close to 200 incarcerated people looking as shocked as I was. Shocked that it was so early in the morning, and at the fact that we were raided in a way never before seen at Soledad.
Never has a group of people who haven’t been involved in any disruptive activity – and who haven’t even been arrested for committing a crime – been raided the way we were. Even when someone commits a crime, they are not raided the way we were raided.
I have been in prison going on 19 years and I have never seen or heard of a group of people having been raided the way we were. But walking out of the dark housing unit, into the brightly lit corridor, I noticed patches across officers’ chests that told me this wasn’t a normal raid.
This was an inter-agency operation, a joint team or special ops, security squad officers – SSU (Special Services Unit) and IGI (Institutional Gang Investigators) – from both Soledad CTF and neighboring Salinas Valley State Prison, as well as CDCR Sacramento, Office of Correctional Safety (OCS), and Special Services Unit Gang Intel Ops (SSU).
But even more than that, we were shocked at the fact that every single person sitting there in the dining hall was Black. Every age group from early 20s to late 70s. Nobody knew anything. Everyone was complaining about their injuries and the way we were raided.
Zip-tied, sitting on stainless steel stools, practically naked in a freezing kitchen during the worst pandemic to hit the world in over a hundred years, we soon realized something that was clearly not the concern of whoever was in charge of this operation: We were sitting next to each other without our masks. We immediately began to demand that we be provided face masks, but just like our demands for medical attention, we were ignored.
We sat there in anger, frustration, fear and, possibly more than anything else, confusion. No one could make sense of “why.” Why, after the prison’s Black population was congratulated and praised by the warden on institutional television for helping maintain a peaceful and positive program, were we being treated so inhumanely?
But the longer we sat there, a troubling picture began to emerge; people spoke to being told by masked officers, “Black lives don’t matter.” Listening to everyone’s experiences, I thought to myself, “This can’t be happening!” at which point I heard an officer tell one person who was complaining about the fact that we were crammed next to each other without masks: “I hope you motherfuckers get COVID!”
The environment was hostile; an officer was in the guntower pointing his rifle at us, which led to an uproar and chant of “Black Lives Matter,” which resulted in Black buddies being carried away. It was around this time that one brother from my building, Bernard Harris, told me my hands were purple – I was so cold that I couldn’t feel that my hands had lost circulation due to the tightness of the zip-ties.
I immediately walked over to an officer named Brown and showed him my hands and he helped another officer, who looked horrified, cut off the zip-ties and replaced them with a looser pair. This was the only relief I experienced while sitting in that dining hall and I don’t believe this could be separated from the fact that Brown was the only Black correctional officer present during our entire ordeal in that dining hall.
Brown is a regular correctional officer, not part of the Security Squad – Investigations Services Unit (ISU) and IGI – or the extraction team, which also included members of the Security Squad, as well as Sacramento’s Special Services Unit Gang Intel Ops (SSU), all of whom were either white or of an ethnicity that possesses an inroad to whiteness.
While there are cries throughout the world of “defund police” and diversify the ranks of police forces, making them more “racially inclusive,” what happened in the early morning hours of July 20, 2020, here at Soledad begs the question: How much more humanely would our Black bodies have been treated had there been more Black officers present?
When I returned to where I was seated, almost every other individual in that dining hall had to have their zip-ties cut off due to loss of circulation. We sat in that cold dining hall shivering for six hours, some of us zip-tied the entire time.
When we raised hell to use the bathroom, we were walked to the back of the kitchen to a secluded part of the prison one at a time, forced to walk barefoot in the officers spit on an already urine-covered bathroom floor. I was forced to strip naked and when I complained, I was told, “You shouldn’t have been Black.”
Every time I tried to get a glimpse of an officer’s name tag, there was none, only patches that read “CTR/SVSP” and “police.” One officer, who came over to where we were waiting to go to the bathroom, however, was recognizable as Third Watch Building Officer Martinez, a known racist with multiple complaints against him for making racist comments and attempting to incite hostilities between the Black and Latinx populations.
It still remains unclear as to why he, a regular correctional officer, was there dressed as a member of the extraction team. Had he been one of the officers who violently extracted incarcerated people (while sleeping) from their beds in the very building he’s responsible for managing five days a week? Is this why they covered their faces and wore no name tags?
But Martinez wanted to be seen. Like a sadistic predator circling back to see its victim, he couldn’t help but show his face. However, his presence raises another question: During a pandemic that has forced CDCR officers and officials to take a 10 percent pay cut due to the governor’s budget and be prohibited from working overtime, per their agreement, how is it that he was able to work overtime coming to work during non-work hours to play “Army”?
This wasn’t just my experience alone. Every other Black person in that dining hall early that morning had a similar, and some an even worse experience. One person who was victimized – Erwin Harris, T25610 – was pulled violently off his top bunk, dragged out of his cell, zip-tied and pushed down a flight of stairs. He had to be taken to medical in a wheelchair.
Another person victimized, Eric Frazier, C62189, also had to be taken to medical in a wheelchair, having been dragged violently out of his cell despite telling his captors he had a pre-existing back and hip injury. He was met with racial slurs while his seemingly lifeless body – according to one eye-witness who wishes to remain anonymous – was dragged to the corridor, when finally a wheelchair was requested.
Another person victimized, Ronald J. Smallwood, C15171, wrote, “At approximately 3:39 a.m., I was awakened by several individuals which I later found out were IGI, ISU and OCS. I was snatched out of my cell in my underwear and NOTHING else. I was then handcuffed with zip-ties and escorted to the chow hall. I sat there for five hours in zip-ties.”
Another person victimized, Derrick Porter, A88849, wrote: “On 7-20-20 at 3:30 am my cell door was pulled open while me and my cellie were asleep. We were attacked and assaulted by ISU Squad members. I was violently snatched off the top bunk by masked CDCR employees. I injured my arm, head, neck, and hip.
“Several officers jumped on my back and legs, while one put his knee on the side of my head. I was cuffed in, zip-tied and dragged out the cell. Not one ISU/OCS Task Unit officer had an identification name tag. I was put in dining hall #1 with no socks, no shoes, no shirt, and no mask.
“It was over 100 Black inmates, all zip-tied and in almost no clothes without masks. We were placed side-by-side and the wall was lined with CDCR employees who wore ISU black patches with CTF/SVSP logos and no name tags. These un-named officers were coughing and sneezing in the dining hall with us in it. SVSP staff came from a prison that has a COVID outbreak amongst staff and inmates. I was scared.”
Another person victimized, Marcelle Franklin, J65015, wrote: “At 3:30 am on 7-20-20, I was awakened by unknown individuals wearing helmets and face masks, later identified as CTF/SVSP ISU IGI and OCS. I was forcefully slammed to the ground, zip-tied, and dragged out of my cell by multiple ISU officers, then placed in dining hall #1 without a mask, in nothing but my underwear for over five hours.”
And lastly, in direct contradiction to what the warden said in an email the following day, attempting to distance himself from having knowledge of our condition, Marcus Harris, O09716, wrote: “On 7-20-20 at about 3:00 am, I was awakened by my cell door being slammed open and being physically snatched out of bed by some unknown persons. I was taken down to the Central Facility dining hall, handcuffed, with nothing on except underwear, and was made to sit on metal stools with no jacket, shoes, t-shirt, or mask for about five and a half hours.
“When I asked to see a doctor, I was told ‘No.’ After about five hours, the warden came in and started to give officers ‘high fives,’ telling them ‘Good job!’ I stood up and said, ‘How are you going to give them high fives and tell them good job for messing over a bunch of innocent Black people?’”
But it wasn’t over. We were then escorted out of the dining hall, still virtually naked, once again down the central corridor, still zip-tied, officers and free staff now clocking in to work looking at us as if we were animals. We were led one by one into what used to be the counselor’s office at the end of the west corridor, where we were interrogated by plain clothed OCS officers.
When we get near the entrance, an OCS officer asked my name and CDCR number before handing the officer escorting me a packet that had my picture. In red letters was the word “Target,” below which was a paragraph of which I was only able to read the first line, which said, “His father is Milton Hayes, a validated associate of the Black Guerilla Family.”
If you know me or have read my most recent blog post, “Crying Out From Soledad: An Open Letter to a Lawyer,” then you know that this is an issue about which I already have two pending lawsuits for retaliation, racial and religious discrimination against CDCR officers and officials for harassing me since 2011 for being in contact with my father.
They also single me out for my writing and journalism against this racist system, particularly my article in the San Francisco Bay View entitled, “Soledad prison guards refuse to wear safety masks amidst COVID-19 pandemic” for which I was raided less than a week after it was published, and more specifically my last book, “Soledad Uncensored,” the forward of which is being published as a series of articles, also in the San Francisco Bay View, entitled, “Soledad uncensored: Racism and the hyper-policing of Black bodies,” the entirety of which speaks directly against what was happening to us these early morning hours of July 20, 2020. Had my writings contributed to my being included in this roundup?
I was led to a room where two OCS officers, one white, one Black, were waiting. They told me to face the wall while they cut off my zip-ties and honestly I thought they were going to beat me, or worse. I was so nervous my mouth instantly became dry.
But, frustrated that I was once again – based on what I was able to read from the description below my picture – being harassed because of my father’s past, I asked, “What the hell is going on? This is how you guys are getting down now?! Snatching people out of bed at 3:00 in the morning?! You have been harassing me since 2011 because of my father!”
That is when the white officer asked, “Why would you say we were harassing you because of your father?”. “Because that’s what is says on the paper you just set aside,” I responded, noticing the look on his face change when the Black officer chimed in saying, “We’re not harassing you. We just want to ask you some questions about Black Lives Matter.
“How do you feel about what happened to George Floyd? I know what the one cop did was wrong and he deserves to go to jail, but all cops aren’t bad,” he said. That’s ironic, considering the fact that here we were, having this conversation about police brutality rooted in racial biases, after approximately 200 Black men were violently snatched from their beds while sleeping – by police.
The premise upon which they sought to base the conversation was disrespectful. We had the whole “a few bad apples” conversation before I got tired and asked them, “So you mean to tell me y’all did all this to ask us about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter?!” when again the Black officer said, “Honestly, you have some tattoos on you that indicate you’re BGF!”
I shot back: “I’m not BGF, like I said when I first came in. Y’all have been harassing me since 2011 for being in contact with my father who, according to you, is a validated associate of the Black Guerilla Family. To me he’s simply my father who went to prison in ‘89 and had been out of my life until my sister found him still incarcerated in 2005.
“I have every letter he’s ever written me and not one of them is criminal in nature. They are letters from a father trying to mend a broken bond with his son. And about the tattoo you guys have been harassing me about since 2011, everything about it is Islamic.” I turned around to show them my back tattoo, which is a dragon with a huge crescent moon and star in the center of it flanked by the sword and staff of the prophet Muhammed, with a verse from the Qur’an over it in Arabic script.
“What about the dragon is Islamic?” they ask. At which point I give them a detailed explanation of a hadith mentioned in S.V. Mr. Ahmed Ali’s commentary to chapter 96, verse 6-7, of the Holy Qur’an about an enemy of the prophet Muhammed attempting to harm him while he (Muhammed) was praying, but turning back in fear because he saw that the prophet Muhammed was being protected by a dragon.
After explaining my tattoos for the 20th time, as well as explaining to them how racist it is to assume that a Black person in prison with a tattoo of a dragon – or a gorilla or snake, for that matter – is a member of a prison gang that has used such symbols – I further explained my point by saying that “if I was Asian and had a dragon tattoo it wouldn’t be an issue!”
They replied, “But you’re not!” and when I asked affirmatively, “So it’s because I’m Black?” they, to my surprise said, “Yes.” After they “apologized” regarding the misunderstanding of my tattoo, saying, “We hope you can get that cleared up about your tattoo,” they told me I could go.
When I returned to my cell, still confused as to why we were kidnapped in the middle of the night just to be questioned about Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, and a prison “gang” from the ‘70s, I was shocked even further by the way they trashed the cell. Everything was thrown all over the place.
My cellmate, who had returned to the cell before me, was busy separating his remaining property from mine when I noticed that every single piece of paperwork, writing paper, envelopes, every letter, picture, photo album, phone book and book was gone. In the midst of my remaining property was a “Security Squad Receipt” that said the only thing taken was “paperwork.”
Later that morning, when everyone was let out of their cells to set up like we do every morning for “cell reading,” everyone was shocked that we weren’t on “scheduled program,” which is the normal protocol when there is a threat, especially one that necessitates a raid. The first step of a “modified program” due to a threat is for the officers to conduct a “threat assessment” by interviewing everyone in the prison one by one, voluntarily.
The fact that they weren’t conducting a threat assessment didn’t make sense. Obviously, something wasn’t right. In the process of cleaning up and preparing for breakfast, someone found paper tags presumed to be place markers used during the raid. One had the words “property team,” “tag 1, receipts” and “Charlie” printed over a watermark on the SSU seal. The other has the words, “Charlie wing” which is the unit where the tags were found, as well as the unit I’m housed in.
At the top of this particular tag, however, were words that would explain everything: “Operation Akili.” The name of this operation was a Swahili word that means “intelligence,” which comes from the Arabic word “Agli,” having the same meaning. They were on a fishing expedition, a dragnet – intelligence gathering – which explains why the only thing they took was paperwork, letters, books, pictures and phone books.
There was no threat. Not only did the name of their operation indicate that there was no threat, but the raid itself turned up no weapons, no notes referring to any type of threat or STG (Security Threat Group, the new term for “gang”) activity. The reality is, there has been no Black STG activity here at Soledad whatsoever. In fact, ask CDCR and Soledad CTF officials to release a report stating how many weapons Black incarcerated people have been found in possession of and how many STG related incidents in the last 10 years have Black incarcerated people been involved in, and I guarantee the answer will shock you.
I was able to obtain every single Program Status Report (PSR) from 2017 to 2020 and not one single report refers to a single STG activity involving the population of incarcerated Black people, not even in the days surrounding the raid. But herein lies the reason why: CDCR officials can’t wrap their heads around the fact that incarcerated Black people throughout the entire state of California aren’t involved in any STG gang activity.
As I’ve been highlighting in my writing these past couple of years, the criminal mentality of old that most people have been conditioned to associate with prison does not exist. Incarcerated people throughout California realize that the days of languishing in prison until one is useless and unable to contribute to society are over.
Even people who entered the prison system as gang members no longer glorify gang culture or the culture of violence. Not only are “self-help” groups being created by incarcerated people themselves to challenge ideas of toxic masculinity and the culture of violence, such as “success stories,” which was recognized by the California Legislature, but laws are being passed that have taken into consideration the work that we are in here doing, which gives incarcerated people hope like we’ve never had before.
And with the passing of Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 186, introduced by Assemblymember Kamlager, that “the Legislature recognizes the need for statutory changes to end extreme sentencing,” which disproportionately subjects Black people.
It says, “The Black community is disproportionately subjected to extreme sentences, representing less than 15 percent of the national population, but comprising 48.3 percent of people serving life sentences, 55 percent of people serving virtual life sentences, and 56.4 percent of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole” and that “research has shown that long sentences do not deter future crimes and that there is no reliable evidence showing that any deterrent effect is “sufficiently large to justify the cost of long prison sentences …
“In 2018, only 2.9 percent of people serving life sentences were released and only 0.3 percent of people serving third-strike were released, and … out of 988 people convicted of murder who were released from California prisons over a 20-year period, only 1 percent were arrested for new crimes. None of the 988 people were rearrested for murder and none of them went back to prison over the 20-year period examined.”
Understanding this, incarcerated people know that it is counter-productive to commit acts that justify one’s incarceration. Not only are incarcerated people politically aware of the effects of violence, but thanks to Black resistance authors such as Bell Hooks, we are aware of the effects of violence in a more holistic way to where non-violence becomes a lifestyle as well as a rock to be used against a system that bases its very existence on our disfunction. It is incarcerated people who promote non-violence that make prisons obsolete.
CDCR officials are aware of this as well. Budgets are already being cut. Prisons are being scheduled to shut down, and employees of these institutions are going to have to find new jobs. However, a certain segment of CDCR have become so accustomed to this sadistic enterprise that they cannot imagine a world without it. They will go to imperceivable lengths to ensure its continued existence.
Since they can no longer use the “violent criminal” as a justification, they have resorted to criminalizing the very existence of incarcerated people. This becomes even more troubling when racism enters into the equation. We know the effects of systemic racism in the police departments and judicial systems, but what many people aren’t aware of, by design, are the effects of systemic racism inside the prison system. Guns don’t exist in prison (except in strategically placed guntowers) so you aren’t going to have “officer involved shootings” of unarmed Black and Latinx people.
Prison is a different kind of monster; the weapon of choice in prison is and always has been “documentation.” Michael Foucault wrote in his famous “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prisons,” “It must be possible to hold the prisoner under permanent observation; every report that can be made about him must be recorded and compared.”
He continues, “No detail is unimportant, but not so much for the meaning that it conceals within it as for the hold it provides for the power that wishes to seize it.” Departments of “Corrections” aren’t concerned with the accuracy of the information about you so much as they are concerned with how they can use that information to control every aspect of your existence in order to maintain their position of dominance. Their sole concern is to create, on paper, a perpetual criminal, thereby justifying the perpetual existence of prison.
Just two days after the raid, we received our property back. Well, almost all of it. Almost everyone who was raided got a receipt notifying them of certain items not returned “pending investigation.” Guess what these items were? Books, newspapers, pictures and quotes from Black historical figures. DOCUMENTATION.
They kept my book “Soledad Uncensored,” quotes from George Jackson used for research on my book, a picture of Dr. Angela Davis and Jonathon Jackson protesting in front of Soledad in the ‘70s – also used for my book – and a letter to a journalist about COVID-19 and anti-Black racism in prison.
Angela Davis and Jonathan Jackson march to free George Jackson and the rest of the Soledad.
Their reason for keeping these items, written on the receipt, was: “The aforementioned items will be retained for further investigation into your suspected involvement with the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) Security Threat Group-1 (STG-1).” Everyone else who received a receipt had had the same exact words written on it. Items taken from them include newspaper articles about George Jackson, pictures of the San Quentin 6, and even sheets of paper with book titles written on them: “Blood in My Eye,” “The Spook Who Sat By the Door.”
This is what we’re dealing with, and it can’t be described as anything other than racist. Every facet of existence of incarcerated people is criminalized, especially if you’re Black. Everything from the books we read to our hairstyles are criminalized.
Hairstyles aren’t seen as an attempt to express our individuality in an environment whose intent is to strip us of anything unique, or that points to our being individuals in any way. Instead, our hairstyles are seen by certain elements within CDCR as expressions of “gang culture,” despite the fact that in the history of American street gangs, there has never been a single hairstyle associated with an expression as one’s affiliation. Even still, young Black men are harassed and even chased down to be given “verbal warnings” for having designs shaved into their heads.
Don’t get “caught” with a book by Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey or Malcom X, and you damn sure better not get “caught” with a book by George Jackson – all of which aren’t on any official list of prohibited books and are all allowed into the prison through order from Amazon Prime, or any other bookseller. But once an officer sees you with one, you will – if you’re Black – immediately be under investigation as a member of the Black Guerilla Family, an organization formed in the ‘70s in prison that today, in 2020, is virtually nonexistent, except in the minds of correctional officers intent on living in the past.
So what you end up with is young Black men who are afraid to study their history for fear of being labeled, while those who muster up the courage – being dedicated and committed to non-violence – seeking to understand the pitfalls of the past in order to contribute to a society they once took part in destroying, by preventing others from treading the course of violence, through knowledge, they are criminalized.
Before recent events, I thought this targeting was simply because correctional officers didn’t understand Black culture, but like the white lady in Central Park, correctional officers aren’t acting out of ignorance, but in fact are tapping into the very anti-Black racist ideas that underpin American society.
They know we are not members of the Black Guerilla Family, but they also know that, in a society so deeply connected to racist ideas concerning prison, that incarcerated Black men are seen as perpetually criminal, and thus labeling us as BGF places a stigma on us that will last throughout the duration of our incarceration, and becomes a barrier in the way of our release. These are the lengths they will go to.
Two days after we received our property, people began to receive “validation packets,” a process to becoming validated by CDCR as a member or associate of a Security Threat Group. It was only after this point that the spokesperson for Soledad CTR released his statement to the public that the people who were raided were members of a Security Threat Group. They were trying to cover their asses.
People were being labeled everything from “chief financial officer for BGF” to “BGF foot soldier.” I told a friend of mine, “Watch these fools say I have something to do with education,” when lo and behold! That same day I received my validation packet saying that I was “the Minister of Education for BGF,” but that was only the beginning.
They said the pictures of George Jackson on my Instagram page managed by my family to advertise my writings, was “BGF propaganda.” They even went so far as saying about my crescent moon and star tattoo: “It (the star) contains five outer-pointed and five inner-pointed, with each point representing one point of the 10-point party platform of the Black Panther Party (BPP), which is part of the BGF constitution.”
But if you thought it couldn’t get worse, they had the nerve to say that the Arabic verse from the Qur’an (79.14) on my back “translated into English as ‘Assaulter, attacker with alertness.’” I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The officer who wrote it was B. Barron.
He wrote: “While conducting photographs of his tattoos (on 4-27-20) specifically on Williams upper back above and below the black dragon, I discovered Arabic writing. I was unable to translate the Arabic writing, therefore, I questioned Williams on the meaning of the tattoos. Williams became defensive and stated, ‘You can figure that out. Do your job.”
Based on my training and experience, I know Williams becoming defensive about his tattoos means they are indicative of gang membership. Upon discovering the Arabic writing, I contacted the OCS, Correctional Intelligence Task Force (CITF) and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Terrorism Task Forces (CT2) to translate the Arabic writing discovered on Williams’ tattoos.
“Upon receiving the translation from OCS, the Arabic writing translated to English as ‘Assaulter, attacker with alertness’ and ‘Tajdeed.’ This Arabic writing is significant to the BGF also meaning he will conduct assaults on behalf of the BGF. The Arabic writing is also indicative to the membership of the Radical Islamic Group “Tajdeed UL-Islam (TUI).”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. “Tajdid,” which is on my lower back, is a concept in Islam that refers to returning back to the original humanistic teachings of Islam, popularly known as Surism. To associate such a term with “radicalism” is disrespectful.
They gave me 72 hours to respond to the allegations in writing, and since they were trying to validate me as a member of BGF, that’s what I focused on, saving everything else for the lawsuit. What I wrote in response to the allegations mentioned above (in part) was: “I find it strange that B. Barron only pointed out the star, attempting to link it with BGF via the Black Panther Party. When pictures were taken of my back tattoo between 2015-2019, First Lt. Officer Pearson (?) immediately recognized the crescent moon and star.
“B. Barron’s failure to recognize the crescent moon shows that he had his mind set on associating me with BGF. When I said to B. Barron, concerning the Arabic writing on my back, ‘You can figure it out. Do your job.” I said that out of frustration, having already explained my tattoos at least five times before, and not because B. Barron said, “They are indicative of gang membership.”
The Arabic writing across my back is Verse 14 of chapter 79 of the Holy Qur’an that translates into English as, “Then behold they will be upon a wide expanse.” Which is a reference to a scene on the Day of Judgment when humanity will be standing “upon a wide expanse” of earth, awaiting God’s judgment.
Whoever was responsible for the OCS Correctional Intelligence’s Task Force (CITF) needs to be re-trained. B. Barron stated that he “contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Terrorism Task Force (CT-2) to translate the Arabic writing” but only used “the translation from OCS,” which according to them “translated to English as ‘Assaulter, attacker with alertness.” According to B. Barron, “This Arabic writing is significant to the BGF also meaning he will conduct assaults on behalf of BGF.”
The reason B. Barron omitted the translation from the FBI is because they told him it was a verse from the Qur’an, and therefore didn’t fit his narrative, just like the huge crescent moon and star didn’t fit his narrative, so he omitted mentioning the moon. This is giving him the benefit of doubt.
What I believe is that B. Barron never sent a picture of my tattoo to the OCS or the FBI, but that he himself “translated” the Arabic, and therefore must be investigated for falsifying documents, because there is no way that an expert would have come up with that translation.
This is what racism looks like inside Soledad State Prison. You will be raided in the middle of the night and assaulted by officers, and when media attention is placed on the officers’ actions, those same officers will falsify documents in order to cover their asses.
And because we live in a society where incarcerated people are viewed as perpetually criminal, who knows how far into the future, and to what lengths, officers will carry these allegations. Will our families be targeted next?
Below is the third part of a serialized introduction to “Annotated Tears, Vol. 2,” by Talib Williams, who is currently incarcerated in Soledad, California, and has written the history of that storied place. In the spirit of Sankofa, we learn the past to build the future.
I was going to relay the tragedy that was the death of George Jackson in a linear fashion, but there are so many twists and turns that the reader could easily get lost. The popular report says that, in an attempt to escape, Jackson smuggled a gun into the Adjustment Center at San Quentin, taking charge and releasing inmates to assist in his takeover. This resulted in the gruesome murder of three white guards, two white inmates, and Jackson himself being gunned down as he ran across the yard, gun in hand, attempting to escape.
But David Johnson, one of the inmates charged with conspiracy and other charges related to this event said in an interview published by the San Francisco Bay View:
“George was manipulated into a situation where they could take the opportunity to assassinate him, but in the process three guards and two white inmates got killed. So to cover up George’s assassination, six of us got charged with trying to escape, possession of explosives and weapons, and conspiracy, and we became known as the San Quentin 6.”
So, instead of telling the story of what happened in what became known as the San Quentin Massacre, I’ll quote a 2017 article published in Prison Legal News by Dan Berger in order to highlight a larger point: that the murder of George Jackson has a direct correlation to the way in which Black men are treated throughout California’s Department of Corrections:
“It is not the last month in Ferguson, Missouri. It is not Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Roshad McIntosh or any of the other unarmed Black men killed by police in recent weeks, though it could be. It is San Quentin, California, in the year 1971. His name was George Jackson. Though more than four decades have gone by since he was killed, his life and death signal the ways in which this country’s macabre routine of police violence against young Black men and women has become institutionalized throughout the criminal justice system.
“With Jackson, as with the others, the deaths marked not just the tragic end of a young life but also the bizarre beginnings of speculation about the character of the deceased. Jackson, an activist and bestselling author, was killed at California’s San Quentin prison on Aug. 21, 1971, by two guards who fired down at him as he ran toward the wall surrounding the prison after a 30-minute takeover of a solitary confinement unit. Unlike the unarmed youth killed by police, Jackson did have a gun on him when he was killed. Yet the circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious, including how he managed to get his hands on a gun. How he managed to acquire it in the confines of what was then one of California’s toughest prisons remains a mystery, especially since authorities kept changing their story about the caliber of the gun and its origins. Was it smuggled in or did he wrest it from a guard who was about to kill him?
“One thing is clear: Jackson’s intransigence and the open-ended questions that surround his death make him a relevant figure in the age of mass incarceration and rampant police violence. His place in history has been secured largely according to one’s political perspective. To some, he is a martyr of political injustice, like Sacco and Vanzetti a half-century before him. Every year, thousands of college students meet George Jackson as an author, someone whose raw eloquence captures the prison experience like few others. And to others, Jackson is an exaggerated bad guy, famous for being infamous and a hustler to the end.
“Depending on your outlook, Jackson is some combination of these. But he is also something else: a specter haunting the American criminal justice system, a trenchant critic even from the grave. Whether as boogeyman, hero or martyr, George Jackson remains prominent in prison America. Indeed, if the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was the dystopic expression of Cold War anxieties, the 1971 killing of George Jackson marked the onset of a new era of mass incarceration and the hyper-policing that sustains it.”
Largely as a result of the massacre at San Quentin, California’s prison system became more stratified than it had ever been. “When we have a hit, the first thing we try to find out now is not who did it but if the color of the man running was the same as the man who is down,” said Warden Park of San Quentin in a New York Times article published a year after the event.
“If the man down is Black and the man running is Black, we’re all right. But if the man down is Black and the one running was white, then we know we’re in for trouble. We know that we’ll have a killing before the day is over. That’s how it is now.”
What this article doesn’t point out is how correctional officers stoked racial divisions between Black and white inmates, and how, because of this division and the guards’ implicit biases, they positioned themselves in opposition to the Black population. The publication hints at this new reality by pointing out that Black inmates were seen as a “new type of prisoner,” increasingly political, who viewed themselves as “political prisoners,” which bothered the guards.
“It used to be,” the warden explained, “when we got a man, he recognized that he had done something wrong he accepted coming here as punishment. But it’s not that way anymore. Now we get what they call political prisoners. They say that it’s society’s fault that they are here. It doesn’t make any difference whether they were caught robbing or stealing or assaulting someone or what. Nothing makes any difference. They say that they are political prisoners and they have this revolutionary ethic.”
Clearly the warden has a vested interest in the narrative that people who commit crime “belong” in prison; that we should just shut up and do our time. He isn’t concerned with “why” people commit crime, which is inextricably connected to the way in which our society views the role prison plays in it. What he’s not considering is that one can be both guilty of a crime, while at the same time a political prisoner; someone who’s reality is affected in a real way by policies that adversely affect people of color.
This is important to the composition of this piece because it tells the story of the origin of Soledad’s racism. For those who are currently incarcerated here at Soledad in the year 2020, it is clear that the conditions that existed then for Jackson and the broader prisoner class continue to exist today.
Mention the name George Jackson or Soledad Brothers to Black men in prison, especially here at Soledad, and you will immediately see the reality of the white gaze: Fear, or at the very least, awareness of the ever-watchful eyes and ears of correctional officers who view George Jackson and Soledad Brothers as an omnipresent threat.
I can relate countless stories – and I do, in my soon-to-be released memoir “And Then They Came” – of Black inmates, myself included, who were harassed by correctional officers for simply possessing books written by George Jackson and Angela Davis.
George Jackson and people like him represent a threat to the system. Their critique of capitalist white-supremacy in relation to the prison system is feared because it exposes prison for what it really is: a racist, capitalist enterprise that is criminogenic by nature. George Jackson as we know him didn’t exist before he was sent to Soledad. He was created by the system, and was keenly aware of what he was becoming, as expressed in his writing, like this passage:
“They’ll never count me among the broken men, but I can’t say that I am normal either. I’ve been hungry too long. I’ve gotten angry too often. I’ve been lied to and insulted too many times. They’ve pushed me over the line from which there can be no retreat. I know that they will not be satisfied until they’ve pushed me out of this existence altogether. I’ve been the victim of so many racist attacks that I could never relax again. My reflexes will never be normal again.”
And in explaining the conditions of prison and its treatment of young Black men, he said: “It is such things that explain why California prisons produce more than their share of Bunchy Carters and Eldridge Cleavers.”
Revolutionaries don’t come to prison, they are created by it; and California, Jackson points out, creates more than their share of revolutionaries. This is the ugly reality that California’s Department of Corrections wants to keep secret. They want us to look at themselves as benevolent “peacekeepers,” protecting society from criminals. They don’t want to tell you that they’ve known definitively since studies conducted in the 1960s showed that prisons are, by their very nature, places that produce criminality, which is good for business because it ensures a continuous stream of income – a revolving door of prisoners returning to feed the beast that created them.
Soledad State Prison is rooted in racism and xenophobia that touches every facet of its existence.
Not only were the very materials used to build this prison salvaged from a former Japanese internment camp, later used as a German POW camp, but recently I learned that the very land this prison is built upon is the home of Ohlone natives and their various divisions: the Chalon, Esselen, Yokuts and Salinan, who were slaughtered and forced onto La Mision de Maria Santisima Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Mission of Mary Most Holy, Our Most Sorrowful Lady of Solitude) for which this city is named. Jessica K. Feinstein wrote in “Soledad, Revisited:”
“It was not an accident that the CTF was built a few miles from the ruins of a mission named for the solitude surrounding it. Isolation, wrote Michel Foucault in ‘Discipline and Punishment,’ ‘is the first disciplinary principle around which the modern prison is organized.’ Alcatraz is surrounded by water; Soledad, by fields. Society thus safely exiles its miscreants. And, in a sense, the California missions were themselves intended as correctional facilities, stations for the recruitment and transformation of the native Indians from heathen hunter-gatherers to Catholic laborers.”
In what seems like a way to remind inmates at Soledad that prison is a thing that “civilizes,” there are two large murals iconizing Spanish colonizers painted on the walls of the dining hall here at Soledad’s central facility. One depicts Spanish conquistadors on horseback making their way through the hills of what would become Soledad, trailed by mercenaries and Catholic priests, all on horseback, carrying a wooden cross, with women (presumed to be colonized natives) walking alongside them.
The other mural depicts the same group of people in a makeshift open-air church, kneeling before the priest. We’re not sure if this is a depiction of Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, founder of Mission Soledad, or Father Junipero Serra, because there is no official record of these murals in prison records or online.
However, because of its resemblance, we’re leaning towards this mural’s being a reproduction of a famous painting depicting the arrival of Father Junipero Serra to the Monterey Bay, who immediately upon arriving in 1770 “erected a cross near an oak tree, hung a bell on the limb, began the formal founding of Mission San Carlos Borromeo, the second mission of the province and celebrated its first Mass.” The picture depicts the original location on the shores of Monterey Bay at the Presidio. “It was eventually relocated near the Carmel river, with better access to water and close to a native village.”
When I first walked into the dining hall, before I even knew the history of this prison, I was bothered by these two murals. Firstly, because of the blatant sexism depicted in one, the intended display of superiority through Christian colonial iconography, and the erasure of native culture and existence represented in them both.
Here we are, at a prison that is staffed by a demographic predominantly Hispanic and Latino who, when asked about the mural, have a completely different response than the prison’s Hispanic and Latino inmate population, who view this mural as weaponized artistic expression, one of the most subtle forms of cultural aggression.
These murals were present during the days of George Jackson, and undoubtedly were referenced as a clear example of imperialism. Painted by an unknown artist and dated 1958, these murals are clearly outmoded, but speak volumes about the message the prison is trying to send to those largely descended from indigenous peoples.
There is a petition being drafted as this is being written, and a plan is being formed on how to attack this racist imagery. If the world can see the problem in the presence of confederate monuments of the South – and in fact, there is “Confederate Corner” down the street from this very prison itself, a small town just outside the city of Salinas, which was renamed to “Springtown” to be “respectful and sensitive to the diverse residents of Salinas and Monterey County” – then we must look at these murals as being equally offensive.
Like the confederate monuments of the South, these murals do not represent reality, they attempt to create a narrative that fuels racist ideas that have negative physical consequences which actually harm people of color. These murals must be removed if CDCR is serious about rehabilitation.
Outside of the murals themselves, the refusal to view their continued display as being problematic is indicative of a larger issue present at Soledad and throughout CDCR as a whole: that is, the refusal of correctional officers and officials to change.
The inmate population has made great strides to broaden their perspectives on incarceration, questioning the culture of violence, going to great lengths to challenge it and taking a closer and more in-depth look at personalities such as George Jackson through the lens of Black feminist authors like Bell Hooks.
Hooks, in her book “We Real Cool,” points out the importance of looking at the system holistically, critiquing the way in which race, class, sex and gender intersect in areas such as the prison system, showing that at the very root of so many of our problems is the way in which we define and express masculinity. She points out that:
“In Soledad Brother, with keen insight and sincerity, Jackson reveals the pain and crisis of a young Black male’s struggle to be self-determining, yet his assumption that patriarchal manhood expressed via violence is the answer is tragically naive.”
Hooks speaks of America being rooted in “a culture of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that has a specific way in which it sees the Black male. “At the center of the way Black male selfhood is constructed in white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” she writes, “is the image of the brute – untamed, uncivilized, unthinking and unfeeling.”
This is the very justification that was used for slavery and what politicians use today to justify mass incarcerating Blacks and other people of color. Hooks explains that the very foundation of this country, being rooted in imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, cannot survive without our buying into and portraying the very stereotypes that have been created for us. She points out that the failure to realize this, or, rather, to develop a framework outside of the patriarchal model, was the biggest mistake of the political approach of revolutionaries such as George Jackson. She wrote:
“While the hypermasculine Black male violent beast may have sprung from the pornographic imagination of racist whites, perversely militant anti-racist Black power advocates felt that the Black male would never be respected in this society if he did not cease subjugating himself to whiteness and show his willingness to kill.
“‘Soledad Brother’ a collection of letters written by George Jackson during his prison stay, is full of his urging Black males to show their allegiance to the struggle by their willingness to be violent. Paradoxically, by embracing the ethos of violence, Jackson and his comrades were not defying imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy; unwittingly, they were expressing their allegiance. By becoming violent they no longer have to feel themselves outside the cultural norms.”
To this critique of Jackson, I would add that we can’t forget the time and place that witnessed his existence. The name of the game in those days was “kill or be killed.” Guards needed it that way to maintain control. So, most cases of Black violence and prison violence in general, Jackson points out, are “a forced reaction. A survival adaptation.”
Below is the second part of aserializing of the introduction to “Annotated Tears, Vol. 2,” by Talib Williams, who is currently incarcerated in Soledad, California, and has written the history of that storied place. In the spirit of Sankofa, we learn the past to build the future. Part 2 begins with the continuation of a letter written by George Jackson to his lawyer, Kay Stender, from his book, “Soledad Brother.” Jackson is describing how Ronald Reagan’s view of Blacks affected the way Black prisoners were viewed and treated during his terms as governor, from 1967 to 1975.
“I was saying that the great majority of the people who live in this area of the state and seek their employment from this institution have overt racism as a traditional aspect of their characters. The only stops that regulate how far they will carry this thing come from the fear of losing employment here as a result of the outside pressures to control the violence. That is O Wing, Max (Maximum Security) Row Soledad – in part anyway.
“Take an individual who has been in the general prison population for a time. Picture him as an average convict with the average 12-year-old mentality, the nation’s norm. He wants out, he wants a woman and a beer. Let’s say this average convict is white and has just been caught attempting to escape. They may put him on Max Row. This is the worst thing that will ever happen to him. In the general population facility, there are no chains and cuffs. TVs, radios, record players, civilian sweaters, keys to his own cell for daytime use, serve to keep his mind off his real problems.
“There is also a recreation yard with all sorts of balls and instruments to strike or thrust at. There is a gym. There are movies and a library well stocked with light fiction. And of course there is work, where for 2 or 3 cents an hour convicts here at Soledad make paper products, furniture and clothing. Some people actually like this work since it does provide some money for the small things and helps them to get through their day –without thinking about their real problems.
“Take an innocent con out of this general population setting (because a pig “thought” he may have seen him attempting a lock). Bring him to any part of O Wing (the worst part of the adjustment center of which Max Row is a part).
“He will be cuffed, chained, belted, pressured by the police who think that every convict should be an informer. He will be pressured by the white cons to join their racist brand of politics (they all go under the nickname “Hitler’s Helpers”). If he is predisposed to help black, he will be pushed away – by black. Three weeks is enough. The strongest hold out no more than a couple of weeks. There has been one white only to go through this O Wing experience without losing his balance, without allowing himself to succumb to the madness of ribald, protrusive racism.
“It destroys the logical processes of the mind, a man’s thoughts become completely disorganized. The noise, madness streaming from every throat, frustrated sounds from the bars, metallic sounds from the walls, the steel trays, the iron beds bolted to the wall, the hollow sounds from a cast-iron sink or toilet.
“The smells, the human waste thrown at us, unwashed bodies, the rotten food. When a white con leaves here, he’s ruined for life. No black leaves Max Row walking. Either he leaves on the meat wagon or he leaves crawling, licking at the pig’s feet.
“Ironic, because one cannot get a parole to the outside prison directly from O Wing, Max Row. It’s positively not done. The parole board won’t even consider the Max Row case. So a man licks at the feet of the pig not for a release to the outside world but for the privilege of going upstairs to O Wing adjustment center. There, the licking process must continue if a parole is the object. You can count on one hand the number of people who have been paroled to the streets from O Wing proper in all the years that the prison has existed.
“No one goes from O Wing, Max Row straight to the general prison population. To go from here to the outside world is unthinkable. A man must go from Max Row to the regular adjustment center facility upstairs. Then from there to the general prison population. Only then can he entertain thoughts of eventual release to the outside world.
“One can understand the depression felt by an inmate on Max Row. He’s fallen as far as he can into the social trap; relief is so distant that is very easy for him to lose his holds. In two weeks that little average man who may have ended up on Max Row for suspicion of attempted escape is so brutalized, so completely without holds, that he will never heal again. It’s worse than Vietnam.
“He’s dodging lead. He may be forced to fight a duel to the death with knives. If he doesn’t sound and act more zealous than everyone else, he will be challenged for not being loyal to his race and its politics, fascism. Some of these cons support the pigs’ racism without shame, the others support it inadvertently by their own racism. The former are white, the latter black. But in here as on the street black racism is a forced reaction. A survival adaptation.
“The picture that I have painted of Soledad’s general population facility may have made it sound not too bad at all. That mistaken impression would result from the absence in my description of one more very important feature of the main line – terrorism. A frightening, petrifying diffusion of violence and intimidation is emitted from the offices of the warden and captain. How else could a small group of armed men be expected to hold and rule another much larger group except through fear?
“We have a gym (inducement to throw away our energies with a ball instead of revolution). But if you walk into this gym with a cigarette burning, you’re probably in trouble. There is a pig waiting to trap you. There’s a sign ‘No Smoking.’ If you miss the sign, trouble. If you drop the cigarette to comply, trouble. The floor is regarded as something of a fire hazard (I’m not certain what the pretext is). There are no receptacles. The pig will pounce.
“You’ll be told in no uncertain terms to scrape the cigarette from the floor with your hands. It builds from there. You have a gym but only certain things may be done and in specified ways. Since the rules change with the pigs’ mood, it is really safer for a man to stay in his cell.
“You have work with emoluments that range from nothing to three cents an hour! But once you accept the pay job in the prison’s industrial sector you cannot get out without going through the bad conduct process. When workers are needed, it isn’t a case of accepting a job in this area. You take the job or you’re automatically refusing to work, even if you clearly stated that you would cooperate in other employment. The same atmosphere prevails on the recreation yard where any type of minor mistake could result not in merely a bad conduct report and placement in adjustment center, but death. A fistfight, a temporary, trivial loss of temper will bring a fusillade of bullets down on the darker of the two men fighting …
“Fay, have you ever considered what type of man is capable of handling absolute power. I mean how many would not abuse it? Is there any way of isolating or classifying generally who can be trusted with a gun and absolute discretion as to who he will kill? I’ve already mentioned that most of them are KKK types. The rest, all the rest, in general, are so stupid that they shouldn’t be allowed to run their own bath.
“A responsible state government would have found a means of weeding out most of the savage types that are drawn to gunslinger jobs long ago. How did all these pigs get through?! Men who can barely read, write, or reason. How did they get through!!? You may as well give a baboon a gun and set him loose on us!! It’s the same in here as on the streets out there. Who has loosed this thing on an already suffering people?
“The Reagans, Nixons, the men who have, who own. Investigate them!! There are no qualifications asked, no experience necessary. Any fool who falls in here and can sign his name might shoot me tomorrow from a position 30 feet above my head with an automatic military rifle!! He could be dead drunk. It could really be an accident (a million to one it won’t be, however), but he’ll be protected still. He won’t even miss a day’s wages.
“The textbooks on criminology like to advance the idea that prisoners are mentally defective. There is only the merest suggestion that the system itself is at fault. Penologists regard prisons as asylums. Most policy is formulated in a bureau that operates under the heading Department of Corrections. But what can we say about these asylums since none of the inmates are ever cured? Since in every instance they are sent out of the prison more damaged physically and mentally than when they entered? Because that is the reality. Do you continue to investigate the inmate? Where does administrative responsibility begin?
“Perhaps the administration of the prison cannot be held accountable for every individual act of their charges, but when things fly apart along racial lines, when the breakdown can be traced so clearly to circumstances even beyond the control of the guards and administration, investigation of anything outside the tenets of the fascist system itself is futile.
“Nothing has improved, nothing has changed in the weeks since your team was here. We’re on the same course, the blacks are fast losing the last of their restraints. Growing numbers of blacks are openly passed over when paroles are considered. They have become aware that their only hope lies in resistance. They have learned that resistance is actually possible. The holds are beginning to slip away. Very few men imprisoned for economic crimes or even crimes of passion against the oppressor feel that they are really guilty.
“Most of today’s black convicts have come to understand that they are the most abused victims of an unrighteous order. Up until now, the prospect of parole has kept us from confronting our captors with any real determination. But now with the living conditions of these places deteriorating, and with the sure knowledge that we are slated for destruction, we have been transformed into an implacable army of liberation.
“The shift to the revolutionary anti-establishment position that Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale projected as a solution to the problems of Amerika’s black colonies has taken firm hold of these brothers’ minds. They are now showing great interest in the thoughts of Mao Tse-tung, Nkrumah, Lenin, Marx, and the achievements of men like Che Guevara, Giap and Uncle Ho.
“Some people are going to get killed out of this situation that is growing. That is not a warning (or wishful thinking). I see it as an ‘unavoidable consequence’ of placing and leaving control of our lives in the hands of men like Reagan.
“These prisons have always borne a certain resemblance to Dachau and Buchenwald, places for the bad niggers, Mexicans and poor whites. But the last ten years have brought an increase in the percentage of blacks for crimes that can clearly be traced to political-economic causes. There are still some blacks here who consider themselves criminals – but not many. Believe me, my friend, with the time and incentive that these brothers have to read, study and think, you will find no class or category more aware, more embittered, desperate, or dedicated to the ultimate remedy – revolution.
“The most dedicated, the best of our kind – you’ll find them in the Folsoms, San Quentins and Soledads. They live like there was no tomorrow. And for most of them there isn’t. Somewhere along the line they sensed this. Life on the installment plan, three years of prison, three months on parole; then back to start all over again, sometimes in the same cell. Parole officers have sent brothers back to the joint for selling newspapers (the Black Panther paper). Their official reason is “Failure to Maintain Gainful Employment,” etc.
“We’re something like 40 to 42 percent of the prison population. Perhaps more, since I’m relying on material published by the media. The leadership of the black prison population now definitely identifies with Huey, Bobby, Angela, Eldridge and antifascism. The savage repression of blacks which can be estimated by reading the obituary columns of the nation’s dailies, Fred Hampton, etc., has not failed to register on the black inmates. The holds are fast being broken. Men who read Lenin, Fanon, and Che don’t riot, “they mass,” “they rage,” they dig graves.
“When John Clutchette was first accused of this murder, he was proud, conscious, aware of his own worth but uncommitted to any specific remedial action. Review the process that they are sending this beautiful brother through now. It comes at the end of a long train of similar incidents in his prison life. Add to this all of the things he has witnessed happening to others of our group here.
“Comrade Fleeta spent eleven months here in O Wing for possessing photography taken from a newsweekly. It is such things that explain why California prisons produce more than their share of Bunchy Carters and Eldridge Cleavers.
“Fay, there are only two types of blacks ever released from these places, the Carters and the broken men. The broken men are so damaged that they will never again be suitable members of any sort of social unit. Everything that was still good when they entered the joint, anything inside of them that may have escaped the ruinous effects of black colonial existence, anything that may have been redeemable when they first entered the joint – is gone when they leave.
“This camp brings out the very best in brothers or destroys them entirely. But none are unaffected. None who leave here are normal. If I leave here alive, I’ll leave nothing behind. They’ll never count me among the broken men, but I can’t say that I am normal either. I’ve been hungry too long. I’ve gotten angry too often. I’ve been lied to and insulted too many times. They’ve pushed me over the line from which there can be no retreat. I know that they will not be satisfied until they’ve pushed me out of this existence altogether. I’ve been the victim of so many racist attacks that I could never relax again. My reflexes will never be normal again. I’m like a dog that has gone through the K-9 process.
“This is not the first attempt the institution (camp) has made to murder me. It is the most determined attempt, but not the first.
“I look into myself at the close of every one of these pretrial days for any changes that may have taken place. I can still smile now, after ten years of blocking knife thrusts and pick handles, of anticipating faceless sadistic pigs, reacting for ten years, seven of them in Solitary. I can still smile sometimes, but by the time this thing is over I may not be a nice person. And I just lit my seventy-seventh cigarette of this 21-hour day. I’m going to lay down for two or three hours, perhaps I’ll sleep … Seize the Time.”
This letter, although long and exhaustive, is important because it highlights a reality hidden behind the iron bars, chains, locks and steel doors of California’s prison system. Jackson’s critique of the system tore down the edifice that became known as the green wall – a concerted effort by guards and prison officials to keep the public ignorant of the treatment of prisoners in California’s Department of Corrections. Jackson’s letters spoke eloquently about the reality of mass incarceration and the mindset that existed amongst both “convict and guard” when he was here.
I quote this letter in length for those who question Jackson’s activism, dismissing him as solely a “violent reactionary.” Jackson was clearly aware of the complexities of the prison system, and it was precisely this awareness that made him a threat.
Over 40 years before Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” Jackson’s letters show us that the hyper-policing of Black bodies didn’t begin with Mike Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk,” but that this is an American phenomenon that reaches deep into the prison system. What this piece will show is that this phenomenon is heightened throughout history by events that send shockwaves to the very core of this country – the events at Soledad only being the beginning.
The Soledad Brothers would eventually have a change of venue for their trial due to the high likelihood of a guilty verdict if they were to remain in Monterey. They were transferred to San Francisco’s San Quentin where they believed they would receive a fair trial. They would eventually be acquitted on all charges. However, Jackson wouldn’t live to celebrate their victory.
When I first began to read about Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, I was enthralled. Their story read like a movie. Not long after they were transferred to San Quentin, Jackson’s younger brother Jonathan would attempt to break the Soledad Brothers out of prison.
Among the many people with which George would correspond regularly was his younger brother, educating him on the injustices of the prison system in direct relation to his innocence.
This naturally had an effect on Jonathan, who had witnessed his brother spend year after year in prison with a life sentence for a $70 gas station robbery in Bakersfield. He further witnessed his brother be falsely accused of killing a correctional officer, and survive multiple attempts on his life, all the while languishing alone in solitary confinement.
Jonathan wanted nothing more than for his brother to be free, but the existing conditions didn’t give him hope. Although the Soledad Brothers’ trial had been moved to liberal San Francisco, the circumstances surrounding the trial, and his brother in particular, was cause for him to worry. If the system had gone this far to ensure his brother remained in prison, how much further would they go? If Jonathan was to see his brother freed, it would have to be he who made it happen.
With the intent of taking hostages to exchange for the Soledad Brothers, a 17-year old Jackson staked out the Marin County Courthouse before eventually picking his target. He blended into the crowd during the court proceedings of Black Panther Party member James McClain, who was on trial for stabbing a correctional officer at San Quentin.
Reports say that, after tossing a pistol to McClain, “Jackson then produced a M1 carbine from his raincoat as McClain held the pistol against Judge Haley’s head …” Jackson told court officials, attorneys and jurors to lie on the floor while another San Quentin inmate, Ruchell Cinque Magee, who was a witness at McClain’s trial, went to free three other prisoners, who were also being called as witnesses, from their holding cell.
After being freed by Magee, a fourth man, Black Panther William A. Christmas, joined the other three revolutionaries. Judge Haley was forced at gunpoint to call the sheriff in the hopes of convincing the police to refrain from intervening. They used road flares to simulate sticks of dynamite, which were held against Judge Haley’s neck before being replaced with a sawed-off shotgun that was fastened under his chin with duct tape.
Jackson and the panthers then secured more hostages, whose arms were tied with piano wire. Those hostages include: Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas and jurors Maria Elena Graham, Doris Whitmer and Joyce Rodoni.
Eventually making their way outside to an awaiting van, Jackson and the panthers, along with the five hostages, began to drive away when police, who had set up a roadblock, began to fire on the vehicle. In the midst of the chaos, District Attorney Gary Thomas managed to grab Jackson’s gun and began firing.
When it was all said and done, all the Panthers were dead except for McGee. The judge was dead, having been shot in the face by the shotgun that was bound to his neck, as well as being shot in the chest. The district attorney himself was paralyzed, having been hit in the spine, and one of the jurors, Maria Elena Graham, was struck in the arm.
After an investigation, it was revealed that the guns Jackson used were registered to Angela Davis, an instrumental figure in the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee (SBDC). Davis stood trial for her alleged involvement and was eventually acquitted in 1972 of all charges.
This was only the beginning. When George found out about the death of his younger brother and comrades, he was proud. He denied having any involvement, saying:
“I’m saying that there was no conspiracy. That Jonathan – a 17-year-old man child – was working according to the dictates of his own mind. In fact, I’m convinced that everyone around him was making a tremendous effort to clip his wings, slow him down.”
The prison had, just months earlier, witnessed numerous racial killings of Black inmates at the hands of their white counterparts. These attacks were instigated by correctional officers, so there was no doubt that letting these groups out together would result in violence.
Johnny Spain, a former inmate, said: “The majority of people in Soledad knew that when the new exercise yard would open that there would be a fight out there.”
Correctional officers and officials were not excluded from this ‘knowing.’ On Jan. 13, 1970, “despite open hostilities, prison officials let both groups of inmates into the yard together, rather than segregating them.”
Fourteen Black inmates and two white inmates were released to the yard after having been on lockdown for several months. The Blacks were ordered to the far end of the yard, while the two white inmates stayed together in the middle of the yard.
It was reported that a fight broke out, and at that point, with no warning shot, Officer Opie G. Miller, described as “an expert marksman,” opened fire from the tower killing three Black inmates; Cleveland Edwards, famous prize-fighter W.L. Nolen, who died on the yard, and Alvin Miller, who died in the prison hospital just hours later. One white inmate was hit in the groin by a ricochet bullet.
Guard Miller’s background was similar to that of other guards; “ex-military, from a Southern state, known to the inmates as a racist.” Based on statements from those who were here in those days, guards just wanted an excuse to shoot Black men, plain and simple.
John Cluchette, one of three people who would eventually be charged with retaliating for these murders, said: “He was going to shoot somebody Black; if it was a fight on the yard or somewhere, he wasn’t going to shoot his own kind. He was going to shoot the other guy.”
The depiction of this incident was captured in the stereotypical racist imagery of its time, on the cover of Ramparts, an American political and literary magazine published from 1962 to 1975.
Among the Black population, it was clear that this was a setup. To raise attention to the incident and add pressure to the investigation, 13 Black prisoners began a hunger strike. The prison was on high alert. A grand jury was convened immediately. Three days later, inmates were listening to the prison radio when it was announced that the Monterey County grand jury had exonerated Officer Miller with a ruling of “justifiable homicide.”
Thirty minutes later, another correctional officer, John V. Mills, was found dying on the floor of Y-Wing, having been beaten and thrown off the third tier. On his body was left a note reading: “One down, two to go.”
On Valentine’s Day a month later, after an investigation by prison officials, George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Wesley Clutchette – who became known as “The Soledad Brothers” – were indicted for first-degree murder by the same Monterey County grand jury that exonerated Officer Miller.
While awaiting trial, The Soledad Brothers were placed in O-Wing, where Jackson wrote many of the letters that would eventually become “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.” In the intro to “Soledad Brother,” re-released with a forward by Jackson’s nephew Jonathan Jackson Jr., we read about them awaiting trial:
“The accused men were brought in chains and shackles to two secret hearings in Salinas County. A third hearing was about to take place when John Cluchette managed to smuggle a note to his mother: ‘Help, I’m in trouble.’ With the aid of a state senator, his mother contacted a lawyer, and so commenced one of the most extensive legal defenses in U.S. history.
“According to their attorneys, Jackson, Drumgo and Clutchette were charged with murder not because there was any substantial evidence of their guilt, but because they had been previously identified as Black militants by the prison authorities.”
“The logical place to begin any investigation into the problems of California prisons is with our “pigs are beautiful” Gov. Reagan, radical reformer turned reactionary.
Influenced by the politics of the nation, California’s Gov.Ronald Reagan had a specific view of Black America that made its way into the prison system and into the very way in which Black inmates were viewed and treated. Nothing describes this reality as clearly as Jackson’s own words. In a letter to his lawyer, Fay Stender, recorded in his book “Soledad Brother,” he stated the following:
“On the occasion of your and Sen. Dymally’s tour and investigation into the affairs here at Soledad, I detected in the questions posed by your team a desire to isolate some rationale that would explain why racism exists at the prison with ‘particular prominence.’ Of course the subject was really too large to be dealt with in one tour and in the short time they allowed you, but it was a brave scene.
“My small but mighty mouthpiece, and the Black establishment senator and his team, invading the state’s maximum security row in the worst of its concentration camps. I think you are the first woman to be allowed to inspect these facilities. Thanks from all.
“The question was too large, however. It’s tied into the question of why all these California prisons vary in character and flavor in general. It’s tied into the larger question of why racism exists in this whole society with ‘particular prominence,’ tied into history.
“Out of it comes another question: Why do California joints produce more Bunchy Carters and Eldridge Cleavers than those over the rest of the country?
“I understand your attempt to isolate the set of localized circumstances that give to this particular prison’s problems of race is based on a desire to aid us right now, in the present crisis. There are some changes that could be made right now that would alleviate some of the pressures inside this and other prisons.
“But to get at the causes, you know, one would be forced to deal with questions at the very center of Amerikan political and economic life, at the core of the Amerikan historical experience. This prison didn’t come to exist where it does just by happenstance. Those who inhabit it and feed off its existence are historical products.
“The great majority of Soledad pigs are Southern migrants who do not want to work in the fields and farms of the area, who couldn’t sell cars or insurance, and who couldn’t tolerate the discipline of the army. And of course prisons attract sadists.
“To determine how men will behave once they enter the prison, it is of first importance to know that prison. Men are brutalized by their environment – not the reverse.
“After one concedes that racism is stamped unalterably into the present nature of Amerikan socio-political and economic life in general (the definition of fascism is: a police state wherein the political ascendancy is tied into and protects the interests of the upper class – characterized by militarism, racism and imperialism), and concedes further that criminals and crime arise from material, economic, socio-political causes, we can then burn all of the criminology and penology libraries and direct our attention where it will do some good.
“The logical place to begin any investigation into the problems of California prisons is with our “pigs are beautiful” Gov. Reagan, radical reformer turned reactionary.
“For a real understanding of the failure of prison policies, it is senseless to continue to study the criminal. All of those who can afford to be honest know that the real victim, that poor, uneducated, disorganized man who finds himself a convicted criminal, is simply the end result of a long chain of corruption and mismanagement that starts with people like Reagan and his political appointees in Sacramento. After one investigates Reagan’s character (what makes a turncoat) the next logical step in the inquiry would be a look into the biggest political prize of the state — the directorship of the Department of Correction.
“All other lines of inquiry would be like walking backward. You’ll never see where you’re going. You must begin with directors, assistant directors, adult authority boards, roving boards, supervisors, wardens, captains and guards. You have to examine these people from director down to guard before you can logically examine their product. Add to this some concrete and steel, barbed wire, rifles, pistols, clubs, the tear gas that killed Brother Billingslea in San Quentin in February 1970, while he was locked in his cell and the pick handles of Folsom, San Quentin and Soledad.
“To determine how men will behave once they enter the prison, it is of first importance to know that prison. Men are brutalized by their environment – not the reverse.
“I gave you a good example of this when I saw you last. Where I am presently being held, they never allow us to leave our cell without first handcuffing us and belting or chaining the cuffs to our waists. This is preceded always by a very thorough skin search. A force of a dozen or more pigs can be expected to invade the row at any time searching and destroying personal effects.
“The attitude of the staff toward the convicts is both defensive and hostile. Until the convict gives in completely, it will continue to be so. By giving in, I mean prostrating oneself at their feet. Only then does their attitude alter itself to one of paternalistic condescension. Most convicts don’t dig this kind of relationship (though there are some who do love it) with a group of individuals demonstrably inferior to the rest of the society in regard to education, culture and sensitivity.
“Our cells are so far from the regular dining area that our food is always cold before we get it. Some days there is only one meal that can be called cooked. We never get anything but cold-cut sandwiches for lunch. There is no variety to the menu. The same things week after week. One is confined to his cell 23½ hours a day. Overt racism exists unchecked. It is not a case of the pigs trying to stop the many racist attacks; they actively encourage them.
“They are fighting upstairs right now. It’s 11:10 a.m., June 11. No Black is supposed to be on the tier upstairs with anyone but other Blacks but – mistakes take place – and one or two Blacks end up on the tier with nine or 10 white convicts frustrated by the living conditions or openly working with the pigs. The whole ceiling is trembling.
“In hand-to-hand combat we always win; we lose sometimes if the pigs give them knives or zip guns. Lunch will be delayed today, the tear gas or whatever it is drifts down to sting my nose and eyes. Someone is hurt bad. I hear the meat wagon from the hospital being brought up. Pigs probably gave them some weapons.
“But I must be fair. Sometimes (not more often than necessary) they’ll set up one of the Mexican or white convicts. He’ll be one who has not been sufficiently racist in his attitudes. After the brothers (enraged by previous attacks) kick on this white convict whom the officials have set up, he’ll fall right into line with the rest.”
So apparently, guards at Soledad State Prison didn’t get the memo from the CDC delineating the countrywide requirement for citizens to wear “face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” which includes grocery stores, pharmacies, and undoubtedly California’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.
They couldn’t be oblivious to these recommendations because every time yard is released, officer Woods makes an announcement over the more than 30 year old intercom system, reminding the inmate population to practice social distancing, and to wear a face covering when purchasing items through the canteen window on the yard, which is operated by “Free Staff.”
When asked why we are required to wear masks while correctional officers and free staff aren’t, (although free staff often do cover themselves) it was said that it was to protect the inmate population from being infected by someone who may have brought it into the institution. But, common sense would tell you that if this virus was to spread throughout California’s prison system, as it has already in prisons in the midwest and the east coast, that it would likely stem from the guards coming in and out.
Unfortunately, only the inmates are required to wear face coverings here at Soledad, and we can be punished for not complying, which is ironic because just weeks before the pandemic occurred, I was wearing a covering over my face to protect myself from contracting Valley Fever, which is prevalent in this area, as well as being more likely to affect African Americans, and was threatened by correctional officers who told me “how many times do we have to tell you guys to not cover your face. If I have to tell you again, you’re getting a 115 (Rules Violation Report).”
When I told them that I was wearing it to protect myself from getting Valley Fever, which almost killed my Muslim brother, Dawud, (David Turner; who has an open case in court against CDCR holding them responsible for having him work in an environment where they knew he’d likely contract Valley Fever) they responded, “we don’t give a fuck.” I already knew that so they didn’t have to tell me. But I didn’t give a fuck either as I turned the corner out of their sight and pulled my face covering back in place.
But I would have bet my freedom that once news began to spread about the importance of wearing face coverings to protect the most vulnerable, that correctional officers here would be the first to be required to wear them. I was wrong. Correctional officers here at Soledad State Prison, once again, prove by their actions that they believe they are above the law.
While we bask in the glory of Veterans Day, under the impression that all who fought in the armed forces, did so for the same reasons, let us not forget that there has always been a segment of the population that has never been viewed as equal, abroad or when returning home from war. Mudbound was more than a movie. It was the reality of so many blacks drafted into America’s armed forces.
Let us also not forget that upon returning from war, blacks had an awakened consciousness. During World War II, Black men who were drafted into the war and deployed to Italy, France, and Germany immediately recognized the similarities between American racism and that experienced by Jews under Nazi oppression.
It is to this time in history that we trace the birth of the popular usage of the term “ghetto” to refer to the living conditions of blacks in America. In his Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier points out that black scholars in the 1940’s used the term Ghetto in direct response to “the rise in attention to the Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe.” In other words, black scholars used this term as a political statement highlighting the reality of the black experience.
Blacks weren’t blind to the reality of their own oppression, nor to their responsibility. Those in the Black press proclaimed, “Our war is not against Hitler in Europe but against the Hitlers in America.”
So as we remember those who fought to liberate others, let us not forget those who fought (and continue to fight) to liberate themselves.
The term Ghetto, as used in reference to America’s inner-citys, is inextricably connected to the Ghettos of Europe, in such a way that to understand one is to understand the other.
During World War II, Black men who were drafted into the war and deployed to Italy, France and Germany, Immediately recognized the similarities between American racism and that of European minorities, mainly Jews. In his “Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea,” Mitchell Duneier points out that black scholars in the 40s used the term Ghetto in direct response to “the rise in attention to the Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe.”
black scholars use of the term Ghetto was a political statement. Or as Raphael Magarik said in his “Understanding Americas Ghettos Starts With the First Jewish One” that:
“Black writers mined the analogy between the two ghettos, and particularly the horror of Nazi misdeeds in Warsaw, to wake American whites from their racial apathy…”
So, there are two points to be noted here. The first is that the use of the term Ghetto was used in black American literature, from the onset, as a political statement. Magarik states this was done “to wake American whites from their racial apathy.” I would add that more importantly this was done to reawaken the political consciousness of blacks enabling them to see the sacrifices and gains made by their Jewish counterparts. And secondly, although the term Ghetto has come to be used in reference to any low-income inner-city neighborhood, I would posit, as Duneier argues, that what has become a generic term has a very specific meaning: “a space for the intrusive control of poor blacks.” and although other “minorities” may live in these Ghettos, blacks were sequestered into Ghettos in the North for the same reason they were lynched in the South; Fear. And this fear persisted and transformed into law keeping blacks from bettering their living conditions. For Blacks the Ghetto became a Trap, whereas other minorities were offered an inroad to “whiteness,” as well as a pathway out of the Ghetto.
I was in the county jail on trial for murder. I had just turned eighteen and the reality of my predicament hadn’t yet fully hit me. The possibility that I could be convicted of murder and sentenced to a lifetime in state prison hadn’t even began to settle in my mind as becoming my reality.
Periodically however, I would see this reality in the faces of those close to me. At visiting through the Plexiglas I would see the fear in the eyes of my brother Donnell as if he somehow could see a reality I was unable to grasp in my own reflection. There was something about the subtlety of expressions in that which wasn’t said.
His eyes had the look of someone who had been granted a glimpse into the future but couldn’t bring himself to speak it into existence. At times i could see it with clarity, but looking back I realize that I intentionally buried, or rather distorted a pending reality.
There’s an incident that occurred in Islamic history that I want to share with you. But first, I would like to introduce you to a phrase. “SLUT SHAMING”
Here, we will be discussing “slut shaming” in reference to the expectations of a woman’s behavior. Particularly, how a community reacted to a woman based on her actions which were contrary to their societal norms.
It occurred on a journey involving early Muslims. On this journey, the prophet Muhammad was accompanied by his wife ‘Aisha. The caravan would stop periodically, and those traveling would set up camp. In the morning, they would continue on their journey.
One morning, while the caravan was preparing to leave, ‘Aisha realized she couldn’t find her necklace (which was a gift from her husband). In the process of looking for this necklace, not realizing she was gone, the caravan left without her, and she, not thinking the caravan would leave without looking for her, fell asleep hoping to be awaken by a search party. But they didn’t know she was missing. Luckily a companion of the prophet, who had been charged with the task of making sure nothing or no one was left behind, had finished his task of checking the camp site, and was on his way to join the caravan when he noticed ‘Aisha sitting on the side of the road crying. He picked her up and they rejoined the caravan. Whispers started to circulate among those traveling that ‘Aisha hadn’t lost her necklace, but that she conjured that story up as an excuse to cover up her secret love affair.
What happened next is profound. Islam has within it the phenomena of real-time revelation; that is, revelation of Scripture as incidents occur. In this particular instance it was revealed the 24th Chapter, 12th Verse:
“Why, when you heard it, (the rumor of ‘Aisha’s love affair) didn’t the believing men and believing women think better of themselves, and say, “this is a clear lie”?…”
The verse, clearly referring to the above incident, could have easily said “why didn’t (they) think better of ‘Aisha…” Which would have been sufficient. But this is part of the miracle of the Qur’an. It possess nuances that are meant to elevate our thinking. The wording of the verse establishes what is known as husn al zann (positive presumption) or (thinking well [of others]” it invites the idea of “treating others how you’d like to be treated.”
In this era of social media where everyone has an opinion about everyone and everything (most of the time a NEGATIVE opinion) we can learn from the wisdom of the Qur’an. The Qur’an doesn’t promote a judgmental outlook. And I would add that, at the core, no religious perspective invites us to be critical. However, the problem occurs when we assume the role of “Religious Police” who feel as if what others do (or don’t do) somehow affects our position with God, when in fact the text that we profess to believe in states unequivocally “you are only responsible for your own soul.”
We are too quick to state what is “wrong.” Maybe we should invest more in seeing what’s “right.”
How do you react when you’re in prison and call home and your wife tells you that Hoda Katebi liked your post about her on the page she (your wife) created and manages for you?
My wife sent me an article called Notes From A Muslim Feminist out of BUST Magazine by Hoda Katebi. the article was a breath of fresh air. in a world congested by pollution I took a deep breath. I called my wife the first chance I got, and asked her to post the following image and quote, to my Instagram:
“Meet @hodakatebi …unapologetic and wit the business!!! Read her work Joojoo Azad.com and in BUST Magazine at bust.com”
Yes, it’s JUST a “like,” and YES I’m “Fanning out.”…oh, you must have missed the part where I said I was in prison.
So as a lot of you know, I have been in prison for 15 years. And like many in my position, I was attracted to Islam. But like too many of us, I had a narrow view of Islam. I had no idea, and no in-depth understanding of Islam’s underlying principles (Maqasid). Simply said, my perspective was one dimensional; certain societal norms I took as universals. Patriarchy being one of them. That is, until I became aware of the teachings and works of religious leaders, organizers, and social activist like Suhaib Webb @suhaib.webb , Linda Sarsour @lsarsour , Yasmin Mogahed @yasminmogahed ,and most recently, Hoda Katebi @hodakatabi who inspired me to question things I took at face value.
I always knew Islam’s general outlook towards Women’s Rights in the examples of the financial independence of Lady Khadija (alayha salaam), the spirit of being outspoken in her daughter Fatima Zahra (alayha salaam). How it was the revelation of the Qur’an that prohibited Infanticide, which was common custom in the Arabian peninsula prior to the revelation of the Qur’an. But what about LGBT rights, Feminism, Intersectionality??? What is Islam’s true outlook about patriarchy or toxic masculinity, and what is our responsibility? These are topics I plan to discuss in upcoming blogs because I believe they’re extremely important.
But I would like to end with this:
Allah (ta ‘Ala) says in the 4th chapter, 75th verse of the Qur’an:
“Why do you not fight in the way of Allah on behalf of the oppressed from among the men women and children…?”
And the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wa salaam) said in a hadith recorded in the Musnad of Ahmad, on the authority of Anas ibn Malik:
“Beware of the du’a (prayer) of the oppressed, even if he (Or she) is a unbeliever, for there is no barrier between it and Allah.”
So, as we approach this holy month of Ramadan, we should reflect on the following question: